By Neal Lyons
On July 1st, 2015, the Boston Bruins traded right winger Reilly Smith, along with the final two years of Marc Savard’s contract, to the Florida Panthers in exchange for Jimmy Hayes. And, with that, the curse was born. It has been a revolving door at right wing, ever since. With every trade deadline, draft, July 1st, and pre-season that passes, the running narrative remains, “who will fill out the Bruins top six, at right wing?”
The Boston Bruins odd relationship with the right wing position pre-dates the Smith for Hayes trade. Over the past decade, Boston has dealt four of the league’s top players. Phil Kessel, Blake Wheeler, Tyler Seguin, and Reilly Smith. Each of them played RW in Boston. Last year they averaged 77 points apiece: a top 30 scorer, league-wide.
Now, we’re not going to dwell on the first three. Boston ended up with Seguin and Dougie Hamilton for Kessel, Wheeler was traded the year we won the Cup, and Seguin hasn’t played much, if any, RW since heading to Dallas. As well, in the early part of this decade, there was less concern at the position. Back then, the Bruins were getting the most out of guys like Nathan Horton, Mark Recchi, and Jarome Iginla.
Jarome Iginla arrived in 2013/14 and was a part of the Bruins’ most productive 1-2 package of the 2010s. His single season in the Spoked B coincided with Reilly Smith’s arrival, and the two of them put up 112 points combined. That was the highest total since Phil Kessel and Michael Ryder went off for 113 in 2008/09. Smith was a lovely surprise that year. His 51 points competently replaced the recently departed Nathan Horton’s production, but the Tyler Seguin trade was still fresh. Fans were going to need to see more to be convinced.
In 2014/2015, Smith regressed a bit, only getting 40 points. Fans began to feel he was holding Marchand and Bergeron back. In fairness, the lineup was in disarray that year. David Krejci only dressed in 47 games so, beyond Bergeron’s line, there wasn’t much consistency. With Iginla gone and Krejci ailing, the Bergeron line was left exposed to much tougher matchups. Both Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand also failed to match their output from the season before, but Smith took the lion’s share of the blame from fans and media. The Bruins missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
There was a silver lining, though, as fans got a peek into the future. Eighteen-year-old rookie, David Pastrnak, burst onto the scene with 27 points in 46 games. The Bruins also acquired Brett Connolly at the trade deadline and still had Loui Eriksson, who could play some right wing. Loui Eriksson’s 47 points, playing mostly on a line with Chris Kelly and Carl Soderberg, seemed to go under the radar that season.
With those pieces in place, and the heat of the salary cap starting to crank up, the Bruins found an opportunity to shed some salary by shipping Smith and Savard to Florida, for Jimmy Hayes. As well as getting rid of Smith’s, two year, $6.850 million extension, the trade would also erase the final two years of Savard’s contract from their books. His remaining salary was only $1.15 million, but his cap hit was a little over $4 million per season.
The Bruins immediately signed Hayes to a three-year deal, with an AAV of $2.3 million. The exchange would provide the Boston Bruins with a cap savings of around $5.15 million for the next two seasons. Of course, Savard’s hit could have been buried on LTIR but, between Smith and Hayes, the Bruins still freed up a little more than a million dollars.
Jimmy Hayes was a local kid, and the arrival of his imposing, 6-foot-5, frame had fans salivating. He was coming off a break-out,19 goal campaign, which the Bruins hoped was only the beginning. The lines are now set for the 2015/16 season. Brett Connolly would play with Bergeron and Marchand, while Pasta would join Loui and fellow countryman, Krejci. It would provide Hayes with an opportunity to succeed in a third-line role with newly acquired Matt Beleskey and up and coming center Ryan Spooner. It was all coming together.
Then the Marc Savard curse kicked in. Nothing worked. Connolly never gelled with 37 and 63, while Pastrnak showed little progress, in part due to a broken foot that kept him out of the lineup for two months. Hayes struggled to find a groove, at one point scoring just two goals during a 25 game stretch. He wound up finishing the season with only 13. Even more frustrating for Bruins fans was the fact that when he wasn’t scoring, he didn’t pose much of a physical threat either. He’s 6’5″, 215 pounds, figure seemingly going to waste.
Meanwhile, down in Florida, Smith was enjoying a resurgence, scoring a career-high 25 goals, while reaching the 50 point mark again. Hayes ended up with just 34 points in two seasons as a Bruin. He was bought out after the following year.
The most frustrating part of the Smith trade was that it didn’t appear as though the Bruins were learning from past mistakes. They had hastily moved on from Tyler Seguin after just one down year, and now they had seemingly done the same with Reilly Smith.
In the summer of 2016, the Bruins made a tough personnel decision. Loui Eriksson was fresh off of a 30 goal season, with some of those tallies coming as Krejci’s right winger. But the Bruins were looking for more of a physical presence in that spot. They needed someone who could gel with Krejci, just as Horton and Iginla had before. Eriksson was also more comfortable playing left wing.
Enter David Backes. The heart and soul leader of the Blues for the previous half-decade, or so, he was a perennial ~25 goal/50 point player, who excelled in all three zones. Seemed like a match made in hockey heaven, and so the Bruins let Loui walk and inked Backes to a five year, $30 million, deal.
It was a decision that we will question for years to come. Backes was already showing signs of decline, and, at 32, there wasn’t much of a chance he was ever going to be the player he was in his St Louis prime. He managed just 38 points in the first year of the deal. His lowest point total in an 82 game season, since his second year in the league.
Though Smith didn’t fare much better in Florida, mustering only 37 points that season, he was also making $2.5 million less than Backes. In 2016/17, between Backes and Hayes, the Bruins spent nearly $5 million more in cap space for just six more points. To take it further, in the three full seasons since Backes arrived in Boston, Reilly Smith has tallied 59 more points, while being paid $4.5 million less.
2017/18 was another write-off due to injuries down the middle. Both Bergeron and Krejci missed 18 games each, and, as you can imagine, the line-ups on some nights looked rough. Perhaps you recall the Marchand, Riley Nash, and Pastrnak line? Krejci spent more time with Ryan Spooner on his right side than anyone else, in case you needed more evidence. On the bright side, Jake Debrusk emerged to become a staple on Krejci’s left, giving him some consistency there for the first time since Eriksson’s departure.
Last season, it seemed as though the RW situation was in constant flux. Backes, Kuhlman, Heinen, Nordstrom, and Cehlarik, all took shifts in the top six. Even Debrusk was moved over for a few games. The Bruins made a valiant attempt to fill the hole via trade, but deadline acquisitions, Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson, found chemistry together, which gave the Bruins a bona fide third line instead. They were instrumental in the Bruins run to the final, but the second line remained a work in progress, as Backes and Kuhlman split duties right up until the end. The results reflected that inconsistency.
So, where do the Bruins go from here? In the offseason, they added Brett Ritchie through free agency. I’m still not sure what the hope was there. He’s mostly a younger Backes, without any of the intangibles. He’s slow, with suspect hands. So far, he’s probably the only player who could make me miss Backes on PP2, and that’s saying something.
With no one stepping up in camp, Karson Kuhlman’s late-season and playoff performance earned him the second line right wing spot to start the year. I’ve said before that I don’t believe he has enough offensive upside to be considered anything more than a stop-gap solution. There is little doubt that he’s better suited for a bottom-six role.
Beyond them, you either move Coyle up to the wing (I wouldn’t), take another lap with Backes (pass), or focus on what’s in the system.
First up would be Anders Bjork, who had a strong camp, looking very capable in moments with Charlie Coyle and Danton Heinen. With his ability to produce still a cause for concern, he was justifiably dispatched to the farm to find some offensive confidence. I would expect a recall at some point shortly. He’s been off to a fabulous start in Providence, and, at 23, in the final year of his ELC, the Bruins need to see what they have in him. It’s also worth mentioning that Coach Cassidy would prefer Bjork plays left wing, so he’s technically not a potential right side solution. Heinen would more than likely be moved over to accommodate his promotion.
Peter Cehlarik is another option. He’s made spot starts with the Bruins over the last three seasons, finding occasional success. He was banged up coming out of camp but has three goals in two games with the Baby Bruins. He’s another player who I feel would be better on the left side. It’s a tough enough league to crack without having to do it on you’re off wing. You’d like to keep his deployment as straightforward as possible.
That pretty much exhausts the current possibilities. Senyshyn is once again struggling to find any traction in Providence, held pointless in his first five games. Oskar Steen likely needs a year or two of pro, in North America, before we can expect much from him. Mind you, and I could see Steen getting a look sooner rather than later if he can find his groove in the AHL, or if injuries clear a path for him.
Bruins Diehard’s own Brendan Conley took a comprehensive and excellent dive into the current options. Certainly worth a read for more insight.
After four years of countless efforts and make-shift maneuvers, the Bruins don’t seem to be getting any closer to solving their right wing puzzle. For now, it appears that Marc Savard’s hex will continue to wreak havoc on the roster. In the meantime, fans are left to reflect on a lineup that could have boasted David Pastrnak and Reilly Smith as it’s top right wings (in either order), with Kuhlman better deployed in the 3-spot, and Bjork battling for top-nine minutes of his own. Had that trade never happened, Boston may have also avoided what has turned out to be their most significant free-agent error (arguably ever), in David Backes.
In closing, when I originally sat down to write this piece, I tried to deduce a team with a better 1-2 punch than Pastrnak and Smith would provide. A pairing that would have topped 130 points last season. Ironically, the first team that came to mind was Vegas and thie top-two, right wingers…
Mark Stone & Reilly Smith.